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DEFIANCE

Review by Gordon Justesen

Stars: Daniel Craig, Liev Schreiber, Jamie Bell, Alexa Davalos, Allan Corduner, Mark Feuerstein
Director: Edward Zwick
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio: Paramount
Features: See Review
Length: 136 Minutes
Release Date: June 2, 2009

“I almost lost my faith...but YOU were sent by God to save us.”

Film ***

I’m always intrigued by films that tell stories from history that are rarely known. Such is the case with Edward Zwick’s Defiance, which documents the rescue and safe keeping of over 1,000 Jews in the Belorussian forests. It’s hard to believe this story wasn’t brought to the screen sooner, but in order to do absolute justice to this particular story one needs the right kind of filmmaker.

Who better than Zwick? He represents the fading art form of true epic filmmaking, as illustrated brilliantly in The Last Samurai and Blood Diamond. And he’s also proven himself as a passionate visionary of historical events with his Civil War masterpiece, Glory.

And Zwick has made an unquestionably a most effective film that does in fact do superb justice to an important chapter in WWII history. Despite some obvious similarities to Schindler’s List, such a comparison would be unfair. But I do feel that Defiance makes for a strong and fitting companion piece to Spielberg’s film, since the events take place only a couple years after Oskar Schindler’s act of heroism.

The film opens in on Nazi-occupied Poland in 1941. As Nazi officers engage in the killing and abducting of Jews from a village in West Belarus, brothers Zus Bielski (Liev Schreiber) and younger brother, Aseal (Jamie Bell), narrowly escape. They quickly make their way to the Lipiczanska Forest, where they eventually meet up with their eldest brother, Tuvia (Daniel Craig).

The brothers have just lost their entire family at the hands of the Nazis. But taking time grieve is hardly an option, as they must do what they can to obtain enough food and weapons from fellow Soviet Partisans. After receiving such items from a friend and Jew sympathizer, Tuvia is asked if he will take with him into the forest a group of Jews that were hiding in the friend’s barn.

Tuvia agrees, much against Zus’ wishes. As far as he’s concerned, they should worry less about helping fellow Jews and more about extracting vengeance to the Germans. Nonetheless, the number of Jews slowly begins to increase and before long, Tuvia and the refugees have built their very own campsite deep in the forest.

For all its powerful elements, a number of minor flaws keep Defiance from being a completely great film, which is what I’ve come to expect from such a grand filmmaker like Zwick. The story starts off a bit shaky in the sense that it rushes into the set up right away. The way the main characters are introduced in the midst of a horrific incident just felt slightly off to me, as I was getting the sense that there should’ve been some build up time for them beforehand.

Another setback is the handling of several love interests. Each of the three brothers ends up getting together with a female refugee, but none of them are given much depth. The most we see out of any of these characters is when the new love in Tuvia’s life, Lilka (Alexa Davalos), has to defend herself from a pair of German shepherds while on a hunt for food.

But those minor quibbles hardly overshadow the great qualities of this film, which also had the misfortune of being released around the same time of the far superior Valkyrie. The performances from Daniel Craig and Liev Schreiber, both of whom deliver dead-on Polish accents, are incredibly strong throughout. And like in any Edward Zwick film, we do get some spectacularly staged action sequences.

Most importantly, though, the film left a strong impact on me by its concluding frame. It does help that the film ends with a rare, and most uplifting, epilogue, If you are as unfamiliar with the story as I was, then I definitely recommend this powerfully told story and superb piece of filmmaking.

Video ****

This anamorphic presentation from Paramount is absolutely stunning from beginning to end! The film was shot on location in Lithuania, and the authentic set pieces help in providing some outstanding sights for the eyes. The forest settings provide not only a green color scheme, but a grey and blue tint as the film progresses. Snowbound set pieces also look phenomenal. A fantastic presentation with endless amounts of superb detail!

Audio ****

The 5.1 mix adds a great deal of power to the presentation, and is given quite a lot to work with. It makes great use of multiple set pieces, allowing various moments of background sound to be heard. James Newton Howard’s terrific score (which received an Oscar nomination) is effectively delivered through the channels. And most of all, the action sequences are most assaulting, in particular the explosion-filled climatic battle! Dialogue delivery is consistently clear and well handled thoroughly.

Features ***

On this Paramount release, we get a terrific commentary with director Edward Zwick, as well as three very well handled featurettes; “Defiance: Return to the Forest”, “Children of the Otriad: The Families Speak” and “Bielski Partisan Survivors”, in addition to several Bonus Previews.

Summary:

Defiance can definitely be counted as one of the stronger and most effective WWII films to come out last year, which delivered a handful of them. I was completely drawn into this telling of a historic event I was not yet familiar with. Edward Zwick has done a most commendable  job in honoring this story and the lives of the people who were there.

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